Fruit not up to a ripe old age

How long should fresh fruit last? Charmian Smith asks around.

A letter from a reader complaining that some stone fruit bought at the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin had to be thrown out four or five days later made me think of my own experiences.

These include:
> Fruit from the market or supermarket that goes rotten a few days after buying;
> Apples and pears with brown cores or soft, mealy flesh;
> Avocados from a country supermarket - that had probably been refrigerated - brown inside although still hard outside;
> Plums so soft and ripe, they are delicious but get squashed on the way home.

I decided to ask a few people and found a diversity of opinion on the likely causes.

Wes Reichal, of Te Mahanga Orchard at Millers Flat, is one of the many small orchardists who sell fruit at the Otago Farmers Market.

He says people have become used to supermarket fruit that is picked hard and needs to be ripened after you get it home.

However, most stone fruit sold at the farmers market is picked ripe and ready to eat. Once it is ripe, you need to store it in the fridge if you want to keep it for more than a couple of days.

Even apples are best kept in the fridge at this time of year, he says. Early varieties, such as cox's, royal gala, Pacific beauty, gravenstein and oratia are not long keepers as some of the later varieties are.

Braeburn apples often suffer from brown cores. The reason is not understood, but it seems more prevalent in Central Otago fruit and is probably weather-related, he says.

However, pears do not ripen on the tree - they just fall off, so you need to keep them at room temperature for a few days.

He says that, being a small grower, he is shut out of local distribution systems, which want larger quantities and consistent supplies, so he sells first-grade fruit at the market and any second-grade fruit is sold more cheaply as stewing fruit.

It was sometimes the opposite in supermarkets, he says, as most of the best fruit is exported and local supermarkets often sell cheap second-grade fruit.

John Webb, a Central Otago fruit grower who mostly sells to distributors but has a fruit stall on Wanaka Rd, near Cromwell, says most modern fruit is picked when it is mature but not ripe. The only fruit that ripens fully on the tree are cherries.

How long fruit keeps depends on how quickly it gets from the tree to the consumer. The fruit he picks and sells through a distributor has a shelf life of two weeks to a month. Fruit picked fully ripe is only good for the pig bucket, he says.

In new varieties, the sugar comes up before the fruit softens and 40% of the population like to eat crunchy peaches and nectarines anyway.

Light, especially direct sunlight, is not good once the fruit is off the tree. He says a fruit bowl is a disaster for storing fruit and recommends ripening it in the warmth in a breathable container, like a brown paper bag (not a plastic bag) then putting it in the fridge to stop it ripening, but it is best to eat it quickly.

Fruit that goes mealy and doesn't keep well may be the result of a cool spell. If it goes rotten quickly, it may not be protected against fungal diseases, he says.

Marilyn Butler, on the Roxburgh Fruit Garden stall at the Otago Farmers Market, says the garden's fruit is picked ripe and hasn't been sprayed with pesticides and fungicides. She recommends buying a little and eating it quickly.

Unlike the vegetables bought at the market, which tend to keep longer than supermarket-bought vegetables because they are fresher, much of the stone fruit from the market is picked ripe or almost ripe, so it doesn't last as long.

Some varieties of apples and pears last well, and one or two stalls manage to keep selling cool-stored apples throughout winter, long after the season is over.

Don Brash , a post-harvest technologist from Crop and Food Research, says stone fruit is highly perishable and every variety has to be treated differently. Some late-season varieties have very little juice and are more prone to going "mealy'' or "floury''.

Peaches and nectarines also go mealy when they are kept in a cool store, but unfortunately the buyer cannot tell until biting into one. If the temperature drops, the fruit might need to be kept in a warmer place.

He is reluctant to put peaches in the fridge and recommends that tree-ripened fruit needs to be eaten quickly.

When selecting peaches or plums, he recommends choosing some that are under-ripe and some that are on the turn and eat them as quickly as possible.

Ripe fruit such as peaches and plums are soft and fragile and I find it's always a struggle to get them home from the market without a few bruises, and the fruit then starts to go rotten if you don't eat them that day.

At the farmers market, at least you can talk to the vendor and ask when they were picked, how ripe they are, how to store them and how long they are expected to last. If you want less ripe fruit that will keep longer, ask for it, or go to a different stall.

At the supermarket, you have to rely on your own judgement.

If you find you have a bowlful of peaches, nectarines or plums that are about to go off and there's no chance of eating them, you can always stew them. They are delicious as a dessert with yoghurt or ice cream or with cereal for breakfast.

Cut them in pieces if you can - I find it difficult to cut clingstone peaches and just use them whole, as I do plums. Put them in a pot with a little sugar and some water (or wine or juice) and a couple of cinnamon sticks or vanilla pods.

Cook gently so they steam rather than boil, and when the juice runs and they are cooked, chill them.

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